Monday, March 23, 2015

PHOENIX Ensemble "In Search of the Chaconne"

Ensemble PHOENIX’s latest program “In Search of the Chaconne” presents many approaches to the chaconne and asks a number of questions about this early form. This writer attended the concert at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on March 17th 2015. PHOENIX is a broad, multi-faceted ensemble specializing in early music. PHOENIX's repertoire ranges from music from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and Baroque to early Romantic music, all played on period instruments. Herzog, however, does not limit herself when it comes to the presenting of a very broad repertoire, introducing audiences to works rarely performed and, in fact, to new music. Such was the case in this concert. Artists taking part in the program were Tali Goldberg and Cordelia Hagmann (Baroque violin), Miriam Manasherov (Baroque viola), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba).

There is reason to understand that the chaconne, originally a fiery, suggestive dance that appeared in Spain around 1600, may have originated in Mexico. Apparently danced with castanets by a couple or a woman alone, it spread to Italy, where it was considered as disreputable as it was in Spain! Viewed as obscene because of the indecent costumes worn to dance it or because of the vulgar body language it entailed, some people have even attributed the dance’s invention to the devil! In the 17th century, a more subdued, stately and slower version of the chaconne entered the French court, where it also appeared in the stage works of Lully. Usually in triple time, the music is characterized by variations over a recurring bass or harmonic pattern. As to the difference between the chaconne and passacaglia, some theorists have defined the chaconne as a set of variations over a harmonic progression, as opposed to the passacaglia variation form being written over a melodic bass pattern. However, one can find the reverse theory; so attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded.

The PHOENIX program opened with Passacaglia in g minor Op.22 by one of Italy’s first virtuoso violinists Biagio Marini (1587-1663). Indulging in the lush affects of this beguilingly tragic piece, the artists rode on the piece’s dissonances, with ornamenting that was personal and inspired by the moment. There were other “mainstream” chaconnes, too. Issued in by the ostinato subject played pizzicato on the viol, the two violinists took on the musical play, complexities and virtuosity of Tarquino Merula’s (c.1594-1665) Ciaccona with fine assuredness and clear interaction between them. The piece also offers the viol a lively, intricate solo. Then, to the poetic expressiveness of the Chaconne in D-major, taken from the first volume of Marain Marais’ “Pièces de Viole”. Herzog and Minkin’s performance of this was anchored on a delicate sense of balance, bringing out the flow of new ideas and highlighting its French elegance and understatement. Although a solo viol piece by Marin Marais (1656-1728) to whom German music theorist, organist and composer Johann G. Walther referred to as “an incomparable French violist da gamba, whose works are known in the whole of Europe”, one was also constantly reminded of the interest and sophistication of the harpsichord role. Written for dance at court or in the theatre, the chaconne of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) Pavan and Chacony (“Chacony” seems to be Purcell’s own term) in g-minor, an early work dating from around 1680, is based on a freely descending tetrachord. It was given its own authentic string expressiveness and “narrative” by the artists, who presented the composer’s mastery of writing variations which grow in power and magic as they proceed through a series of harmonic adventures. One of many chaconnes by G.F.Händel, we heard the chaconne from “Terpsichore”, the ballet-prologue the composer wrote in 1734 for his third version of “Il Pastor Fido”. Here was a chaconne to be danced, written for performance of the French dancer and choreographer Marie Sallé, who performed in this and other Händel operas from 1734-1736, when she was in London.
There were some Baroque composers, to name two, G.Frescobaldi and François Couperin, who enjoyed the play of ambiguity in composition, as they used genre characteristics in a tongue-in-cheek manner. A curious departure from the chaconne was heard In Couperin’s rondeau-chaconne “La Favorite”, written in duple time, rather than triple, yet linked to the dance form by its stately character and its cyclic form. Its recurring bass line is a chromatic scale with figurations. Bristling with interest, Marina Minkin’s reading of this ”Chaconne à deux temps” presented Couperin’s picturesque harpsichord expression, unfailing interest and variety, as she juxtaposed the color of registers and used creative ornamentation to intensify and, sometimes, to relax the music’s course. Minkin also performed a 20th century work inspired by the same form – Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) “Passacaglia Ungherese”. One of only two harpsichord pieces Ligeti had written, it is based on eight intervals slowly spiraling downward through invertible counterpoint; the composer’s instructions were that it be performed on an instrument tuned to mean-tone temperament, producing eight completely pure intervals. The total effect has a curious otherworldly effect and makes for a beguiling mood piece, a dialogue in a non-tonal musical language with a few somewhat tonal progressions. Add to this some elegant melodies, growing rhythmic intricacy and intensifying, blatant fraught dissonances. Minkin, known for her performance of modern music, juggled the many elements of this piece with great skill and insight.

Another very different take on the dance form at hand was British composer Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) Chaconne from Suite No.1 in E-flat opus 28 (1909), written for wind band. (Holst was a trombonist). The Chaconne (first movement) is based on a 14-note melody that moves from instrument to instrument, with much weaving of varied lines in and through the ground. In this concert, the work was played on strings only, and period instruments at that! But the instrumentalists recreated the articulacy, atmosphere and sound world of early 20th century British music very successfully, reminding one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ description of Holst’s music as “uncompromisingly direct (it) reaches into the unknown but never loses touch with humanity”.

The event also included world premieres of two chaconnes, both composed for PHOENIX and for the program. Of his Chaconne, violinist, violist and composer Jonathan Keren wrote: “Treating a melody or a recurring bass have always fascinated me, so I was happy when Myrna Herzog asked me to write a chaconne for the PHOENIX Ensemble…The recurring bass I used in my work is a series of ten notes (a 12-tone row minus two notes.) This row makes writing in the early style difficult as it does not comprise a typical (chaconne) course, being almost atonal in character…” This being the case, the piece opened in a tonal manner. However, with the ground always obvious, it proceeded to touch the ear’s associations of both tonal- and atonal music as the individual lines became more complex and sometimes less so. So the listener finds himself straddling both tonal- and atonal sound worlds quite comfortably, without giving up on either. Jonathan Keren’s Chaconne is both accessible and rewarding to hear.

Moscow-born pianist, arranger and composer Uri Brener is an artist who performs and writes music of many styles and genres, from music for piano, chamber music, vocal-, choral- and symphonic music, electro-acoustic- and crossover music. “In Search of the Chaconne”, a vibrant, eclectic work, from which the concert took its name, reflected Brener’s use of a wide range of styles. His musical agenda included oriental touches, dance music, the bourdon, clusters and driving rhythms in what built up to relentless, full-on energy. This energy spent, we were presented with a tranquil, homophonic chorale-like section, the piece finally winding down to the minimal strand of pizzicato notes on the viol. Brener is a master orchestrator with much to say in the chamber music medium. Writing for specific artists meant including vigorous, challenging solos of strongly individual character – for violin, viola as well as some electrifying material for harpsichord.

Once again, PHOENIX has presented its listeners with a unique, thought-provoking program, taking the courtly Baroque chaconne as its point of reference and examining works inspired by it right up to today. There was a sense of in-depth enquiry, inventiveness, involvement as well as enormous vivacity in the playing of all five artists, inviting the listener to immerse himself fully in each item on the program.

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